Nov 29 2007

The Denialism Dodge

Deniers – those who, for whatever reason, deny the conclusions of well-established science, employ a number of strategies in their denial. Like a good illusionist, deniers are primarily involved in misdirection. I was recently reminded of one tactic of deception when the following quote was used to suggest that the materialist explanation of mind is not adequate.

J. Fodor stated in a paper published in 2001 that “So far what our cognitive science has found out about the mind is mostly that we don’t understand how it works.”

Dualists, those who believe that consciousness and the mind are something more than the material biological functioning of the brain, are, in my estimation, neuroscience deniers. They deny the current model of biological neuroscience in order to manufacture a gap, and then try to slip their dualism – their “ghost in the machine” – into that gap.

Now at this point most readers are probably thinking that we don’t fully understand how the brain works and creates the phenomenon of mind, and you are correct. But that is the misdirection – confusing the question “does A cause B” with “how does A cause B.” Let me first illustrate this denial tactic with a more established example, creationism (or evolution-denial).

Evolution deniers will often take quotes from biologists that are referring to either the mechanisms of evolution or the details of the historical pattern of evolution and then present them as if they are questioning the fact of evolution. For example, one of the classic “icons of evolution” is the American Museum of Natural History display of the evolution of horses – from eohippus (now tragically renamed as hyracotherium) to the modern horse. As our understanding of the pattern of evolution developed it was realized that such linear progressive representations are fictions. Evolution with speciation creates a branching bush of descent, without any linear trend toward an apparent goal. Cherry picking horse relatives from this bush and placing them in a line toward one branch – modern horses – completely misrepresents the true pattern of speciation over time in the horse lineage. Creationists still delight in taking quotes to that effect completely out of context, as if they call into question the fact of evolution itself.

Disagreements and uncertainty at one level of complexity does not necessarily call into question higher level conclusions. Debates over the details of evolution does not decrease our confidence that evolution happened. Just as research into the details of genetic complexity does not call into question the fact that DNA is the molecule of inheritance, or the basic facts of genetics. Science progresses largely by creating a more and more detailed picture of nature, digging deeper and deeper into how the world works. Generally, lower level, or more detailed questions, do not affect higher level questions. Even if they reveal an anomaly that cannot be explained by the overall paradigm, this usually results in a modification of the paradigm, not a dismissal of it. For example, observed anomalies led to relativity, which was a refinement of, and not a replacement of, Newton’s classical laws of motion.

Returning to consciousness and the brain – all the evidence we have suggests that the mind is a product of the brain. There is no mind without the brain (despite the unsubstantiated claims of paranormalists). If the brain is not biologically active, there is no consciousness. If the brain is damaged, the mind is altered. As brain function changes through drugs, lack of sleep, fever, or some metabolic derangement – so changes the mind. No reliable observation or experiment has been able to separate the mind as a phenomenon from the brain.

As an aside, dualists will often point to near death experiences, out of body experiences, or reincarnation as evidence for a non-biological mind. Delving into each of these areas is beyond the scope of this entry, but I will just summarize my position as stating that I have not seen any compelling evidence that any such phenomenon exists in a form that cannot be explained as brain function. For example, we can reliably create out of body experiences by altering brain function.

The evidence that the brain creates mind is, in my opinion, overwhelming. While the evidence for a mind separate from the body is dubious and questionable – certainly insufficient to disprove the brain-mind hypothesis.

Dualists have therefore adopted the strategy of creationists by requiring that neuroscientists explain, in detail, exactly how the brain creates the subjective experience of mind. There are preliminary answers to this question. The mind is an emergent property of the brain and cannot be reduced to any single component of brain function. This is, admittedly, just a partial answer – merely describing the type of phenomenon we are dealing with, and not really explaining it.

We have also identified many of the components of consciousness – localized them to specific brain regions. For example, we have identified brain regions that create the sense we are inside our bodies, that we exists as an entity separate from the rest of the universe, that allows us to direct our attention and form memories. We have long identified those parts of the brain that see, feel, plan and execute movement, and generate emotional reactions. With functional MRI studies neuroscience has accelerated, and we are quickly reverse engineering the brain piece by piece. In fact, a quote from 2001 is now hopelessly outdated. The last six years alone has witnessed an explosion in neuroscience.

This brings up another aspect of this strategy – focusing on the snapshot of a science rather than its progress over time. Creationists often point to gaps in evolutionary knowledge – whether it’s the fossil record or, more recently, genetics or biochemistry. However, there will always be gaps in our scientific knowledge. The presence of gaps does not really tell us anything about the power and success of a scientific explanatory paradigm. A better assessment is to look at the history of a scientific idea and then see how successful it has been in making predictions and improving upon the details of its descriptions of nature. How has it progressed. Pseudosciences like homeopathy and ESP have not progressed – they are chasing their tails going around in circles without making any forward progress. Evolution, by contrast, has been remarkably successful as a means of scientific explanation.

Likewise, the materialist paradigm of mind and consciousness – the notion that the brain is the cause of mind – has been and continues to be a very successful model. One manifestation of this is that neuroscience, as a discipline, has grown and progressed. As new tools come online our ability to explore the brain, and to explain the phenomenon of mind, has increased. The dualist paradigm, by contrast, has not produced anything tangible or reliable. It is still chasing its tail and pointing at the current gaps in neuroscience, without looking at the big picture.

The handwriting is on the wall for the dualists, just as it was for the creationists. Scientists follow what works. Evolution works as an explanation for the complexity of life on earth. Neuroscience works as an explanation of mind and consciousness. We will never have all the answers, never fill in all the gaps, but as long as these paradigms continue to flourish and succeed, scientists and the scientific community will follow them. And the deniers will be further and further marginalized to griping on the sideline, peevishly pointing at the shrinking gaps and desperately trying to prop up false anomalies.


18 responses so far

18 Responses to “The Denialism Dodge”

  1. Bowdiniumon 29 Nov 2007 at 11:17 am

    Congratulations on another excellent and thought provoking article. Personally, I am especially keen on topics like this. Academics espousing dualist views are a much more complex and nuanced target of criticism than the usual motley array of creationists, quacks and fantasy prone individuals.

    One quick question for yourself and other Medical professionals who visit the site. It`s easy to see how a philosopher such as Fodor could consider dualism a likely prospect since his work is purely theoretical, however are there any respected neuroscientists, working with the brain on a daily basis, who share this view? I suppose it`s inevitable, given that belief in dualism is a pre-requisite for the vast majority of religions, but it must take a masterclass in cognitive dissonance to remain oblivious to the daily shaking of one`s ideological foundations.

  2. Michael.Meadonon 29 Nov 2007 at 3:54 pm

    I feel I ought to point out that Jerry Fodor is most certainly not a dualist. (Steve didn’t say he was, but Bowdinium thought he did). Fodor is a pioneering philosopher of mind and has been influential on such matters as the modularity of mind and the language of thought hypothesis. He’s far from being a dualist. (See

    In fact, few philosophers I am aware of still defend dualism – the last one that comes to mind is Donald Davidson. (And he defended a very odd position known as “anomalous monism” that attempts to hold on to both materialism and free will, see

    (Spot the person who did undergrad philosophy…)

  3. Blake Staceyon 29 Nov 2007 at 4:10 pm

    One day, a student of biochemistry and a student of philosophy will be debating into the night. The philosophy student will say, “But you can’t explain qualia! You give me all these neurotransmitters and brain scans and magnetic stimulation experiments and models of cortical activity, but you can’t explain qualia!”

    The biochemist will, without a word, reach across the table and peel back the skin of the philosopher’s hand, revealing the metal bones and plastic tendons beneath, then pull away the hair from the head, revealing a twinkling constellation of LED indicators. . . .

  4. happy humaniston 29 Nov 2007 at 4:37 pm

    I’ve had the opportunity (pleasure isn’t the word!) to post comments on HuffPo when Deepak Chopra blogs about human consciousness. I have to gently remind most posters that there is no mind without brain. The very simple proof is when the brain is damaged, the personality and mind are changed.

    But these people don’t want to hear it. The deny, deny, deny crowd but, but, but… me and the other sensible posters about “things we don’t know.” And how I’m hopelessly “materialistic” without an imagination!

    Arghhhh!!! :)

  5. nfpendletonon 29 Nov 2007 at 6:30 pm

    The “outstanding claims demand outstanding evidence” credo comes very much into play where this subject is concerned. The only problem is, that since humanity has spent tens of thousands of years in pre-scientific superstition and neuroscience is so painfully young by comparision, the burden of proof is flipped 180 degrees out of whack. Believe something long enough–no matter how strange it may be–and anything can seem normal.

    The soul escapes the body when it’s dead or damaged? Of course! Everyone pretty much agreed with that until true study of the brain began to shed light on the subject. But that “common knowledge” of our post-physical immortality is one of the most outstanding claims one can think to make. Magical and wishful all in the same breath.

  6. Bowdiniumon 29 Nov 2007 at 9:21 pm

    My mistake Michael.Meadon, you`re quite right, Dr Novella does not explicitly state that Fodor is a dualist. My question still stands though. Are there successful doctors working with the brain who also maintain a dualist belief. If so, how on earth do they justify it?
    Is it along the lines of `the ghost is working fine but the corporeal machine is faulty`

    One more point (made by many a materialist philosopher). If the soul is of an entirely different nature to the brain then how on earth would they interact? For the soul to affect the brain physically it would have to be a tangible entity.

  7. VoAon 29 Nov 2007 at 10:06 pm

    Much of the difference between the more kene monist and dualist seems to be a matter of definition.

    I definetely believe that the brain creates the mind, and creates the reality in it, which, then determines the response. The problem I have with most monism theories I’ve read is that they either say “the mind, which just happens to be complex and fairly coherent, is a byproduct of the brain, that doesn’t do anything, and we magically evolved this way” or “c-fibre stimulation is LITERALLY the same thing as pain, rather than correlates”. That always bothered me.

    Another problem is that Intereactionalism tends to be labelled as dualism, but is it? Why isn’t the brain just a computer, with no consciousness? There must be some advantage to a mind? It must do *something*. I tend to see it as another determinist aspect of the universe: your neural correlates correspond to pure langauge, which together construct a reality. The mind acts on it’s logic (neural corelates) and desires (more neural correalates).

    So, I just stick to “the mind is what the brain does”. Thought position can still be labelled as dualist by people…

    As a side note, I’ve been trying to reconcile this with morality/choice/responsiblity for months…no luck so far :(

  8. VoAon 29 Nov 2007 at 10:11 pm

    Gah, in to much of a hurry, I meant “Though that position can still be …”.

  9. ellazimmon 30 Nov 2007 at 3:04 am

    Bowdinium: From my discussions with true-believer dualists some of them believe that the brain is like a two-way radio and that a mechanism will be discovered. Some of them also seem to think that it’s possible for energy to exist in a free state. That kind of idea does help if you also want to believe in ghosts.

    Now, if they posited bleed throughs from a parallel universe they might get interesting. But they’d still have to find the receiving and transmitting portion of the brain. OH WAIT! It’s quantum entanglement. Whew, thank goodness for paradigm shifts eh?

  10. Michael.Meadonon 30 Nov 2007 at 7:30 am


    Yeah, you’re right: your question does still stand. I don’t know what the answer is either – although, a priori, I’d be rather surprised if there were too many. Perhaps Steve has some anecdotal evidence? That said, people often compartmentalize quite successfully so I doubt it’s totally unheard of.

    The question of how the “soul” interacts with the body is of course the doozy: it’s a central concern in the philosophy of mind since Descartes. Several strange (and entirely untestable) ideas have been suggested; my personal favorite is Leibniz’s parallelism (

    Everybody else…

    I’d suggest that some of the commentators (again, not Steve) have been a bit too hung-ho… Yes, I agree the mind is what the brain does (as Pinker put it) and, yes, dualism is crap. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that there are many unsolved problems – and several mysteries (in Chomsky’s usage of that term).

    (I keep having to defend philosophy… For the record, I’m NOT one – I do cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. I just think the combination of (a) ignorance of philosophy and (b) contempt of philosophy is not a particularly viable position. You have to have a reasonable degree of familiarity with the serious academic literature – and not just stuff gleaned second hand from popular-writings – to have a serious intellectual position on this stuff.)

  11. VoAon 30 Nov 2007 at 12:41 pm

    I’d agree with Michael.Meadon here. There is a LOT of low-hanging fruit and issues of definition as well. This entry does seem to focus on some random crap and then dismiss an entire topic with a bit too much of a broad brush. Otherwise good though.

  12. VoAon 30 Nov 2007 at 12:44 pm

    happy humanist: heh, I hope you are not really a “humanist” ;)

    Humanism is pretty dogmatic and largerly psuedoscientific with respect to the mind and differences between us and other animals. Thats why I’d call myself a post-humanist (you can look at on the ole Wikipedia too).

  13. M4tton 01 Dec 2007 at 8:18 pm

    Just a quick response to Michael Meadon’s assertion that Davidson was a dualist …

    It seems obvious to me that Davidson was a property dualist rather than a substance dualist. He is not claiming that there are two sorts of stuff (say, mind and matter). Indeed, he is explicit that there is only one sort of stuff – which is why he called his position anomalous MONISM.

    However, Davidson argued, persuasively to my mind, that:

    1) Mental events are indeed entirely physical events and are instantiated in the brain.

    Hence monism.

    2) The descriptions of mental events are incommensurable with descriptions of the biology in which they are instantiated.

    Hence anomalous.

    The position is subtle, nuanced and extremely useful – it might even be right – I think that people as far apart as Lynne Rudder Baker and Andy Clark buy this position.

    However, anyone who buys Dennett’s AM light, ‘intentional systems theory’ is at least as much of a dualist as Davidson as they accept that certain (physical) patterns are only discernible from a particular (mentalist) stance (which is incommensurable with the physical descriptions – that’s what all that talk about Martian mindreaders was trying to obfuscate).

    Let me put it another way. Davidson, I think, believes that the two are simply logically incommensurable while Dennett veers wildly between outright elimination, Davidson’s position and logically commensurable but practically incommensurable depending on how real he needs ‘stances’ to be for whatever project he is engaged in!

  14. [...] (Read the article here) [...]

  15. Michael.Meadonon 02 Dec 2007 at 12:06 pm


    Yeah, you’re right – Donaldson isn’t a substance dualist. I was grasping at straws trying to think of serious philosophers who actually still defend dualism. (Can you think of any? I can’t.) [Obviously, I'm not counting theologians. I don't think they should be taken particularly seriously]. Donaldson comes closest to the dualisty concerns wrt freedom. The main point of AM, it seems to me, is to “attempt to hold on to both materialism and free will” (as I said in my post, above).

    To be honest though, AM has never made sense to me. I’ve read the “Mental events” paper a couple of times (this was a number of years ago) and could never wrap my mind around it. Frankly, I didn’t think it was coherent. That said, I’m no philosopher and I’m sure you know more about the issues than I do.

  16. M4tton 02 Dec 2007 at 5:57 pm

    Actually, I take some theologians extremely seriously – but only when they are talking about issues where belief in a God does not get in the way of good metaphysics and theorising. Depending on your point of view that may be an asymptotic realm!

    As for Davidson I think AM is rather beautiful and has been hugely influential on me.

  17. [...] Last week I wrote about dualism – the philosophical position that the mind is somehow more than or separate from the biological activity of the brain. I argued that dualists commit the same error in thinking as creationists when they doubt the causal relationship between brain an mind because we cannot fully explain how the brain causes mind, not recognizing that this is a separate question from does the brain cause the mind. In the same way creationists confuse scientific knowledge concerning how evolution works with the evidence for the fact of evolution. We can know that life evolved without knowing all the details of how, just as we can know that the mind is a manifestation of brain function without knowing all the details of how brain function creates the experience of mind. [...]

  18. [...] I have discussed previously, one way to dodge the obvious conclusion from this evidence is to confuse the question of how the [...]

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.